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The Bingham Canyon Mine produced the largest non-volcanic landslide in the history of North America on April 10th, 2013, at 9:30 PM. The landslide was so intense that two different universities reported it was detected on their seismic networks, which are used to detect earthquakes. These reports came from the University of Utah and Columbia University.
Less than a year later, a second landslide occurred on September 11th, 2013, causing 100 workers to be forced to evacuate the site. While the size of the landslide in April of 2013 was unexpected, the timing was not, claims University of Utah geologist Jeffery Moore. He boasted in an email stating, “The main lesson to be learned is that large rock slope failures like this are not unpredictable ‘acts of God.’” He had nothing to say about the unpredictable landslide later that year in September.
What Is the Bingham Canyon Mine?
The Bingham Canyon Mine is known to be one of the largest open pits in the world. It is an extremely large producer of copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum. The extraction processes now used to acquire these metals are severely harmful to the workers and to the residents in the surrounding areas. The recent landslides are also quite alarming, but this frightening 2.5-mile-wide and 3,900-foot-deep pit was man-made.
History of Mining in Bingham Canyon
On July 24th, 1847, the Mormon Pioneer party settled in the territory of Utah. They immediately began preparing the land for agricultural and irrigation purposes while mass exploration of the area began. It has been said that Utah was planned to be modeled after Joseph Smith’s vision of Zion: a community with farmers, tradesmen, and a residential area with farms and farm buildings.
Copper ore was first discovered in what is now called the Bingham Canyon in 1848 by the two Bingham brothers, Sanford and Thomas. They reported their findings to Brigham Young, who advised them against pursuing any mining operations at the time. He believed survival and establishment of the settlements was of much greater importance.
About fifteen years later in 1863, extraction of the ore began. The rough desert terrain made it difficult to mine at first, but in 1873 a railroad reached the canyon, which caused the mining activity and number or residents to grow enormously. By the 1920s, the mine was expanding faster than ever, but the residential population drastically declined as mining techniques improved and increased.
The mine was eventually bought by the Kennecott Company in 1936. The Bingham Mine set new world records during World War II for producing the largest amount of copper used by United States Allies.
Today: Massive Output, Hazardous Pollution
Today, the mine is the second largest supplier of copper in the United States; it provides about 18–25% of all the copper for the country's needs. In 2011, Kennecott produced approximately 237,000 tons of copper, along with 379,000 troy ounces of gold, 3.2 million troy ounces of silver, about 30 million pounds of molybdenum, and about 1 million tons of sulfuric acid.
Kennecott Utah Copper is now the largest producer of pollution in the state of Utah. The chemicals used and produced to extract copper and other metals from an ore are quite hazardous to the workers at these sites and the residents in the towns surrounding it, especially when being extracted from ores in an open pit like the Bingham Canyon Mine. An ore is a type of rock that contains important elements that may be extracted for profit. The ore must first be crushed, then go through multiple stages of purification.
Stages of Purification
There are three typical intensely dangerous purification stages that an ore with viable mineral elements will go through before becoming a useable precious metal: froth flotation, roasting, and smelting.
After the ore has been mined and crushed, the first step it must go through is what is called froth floating. The purpose of froth floating is to remove a few types of sulfides, carbonates and oxides, before further refinement. This is accomplished by selective wetting of the types of particles to be separated by use of a chemical agent. There are many different types of chemicals that can be used in the collection process but the most common are oil, xanthates, dithiophosphates, petroleum sulfonates and fatty amines. There are three different flotation stages the ore must go through; roughing, cleaning and scavenging.
The next step is a metallurgical process called roasting, which involves the ore being treated with extremely hot air. This is done to further purify the metal components that were previously purified by the froth flotation process. While roasting, sulfide is converted into an oxide, thus releasing sulfur into the air in the form of sulfur dioxide gas. The roasting process is known to be a serious source of air pollution, but it also a very useful and profitable one.
The third process in extraction of copper and other precious minerals is smelting. The main purpose of this step is to produce the ore into a useful metal. Smelting uses very high heat and a chemical reducing agent such as coke, a low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal. The carbon that is derived from the chemical reducing agent is oxidized into two different stages, carbon monoxide and the carbon dioxide which strips the ore of all oxygen leaving behind only the elemental metal. A large number of seriously harmful chemicals are emitted into the atmosphere during the smelting process.
There are many different hazardous chemicals used and produced through the purification process of precious metals. The chemicals and the metals that are created are released into to air as fine particles or viable compounds. It is not only polluting our air, but also our soil and water. Metal-bearing dust particles can travel very far distances to pollute surface waterways and the land.
Some of the most hazardous air pollutants that are emitted into the atmosphere from mining and refining these ores at the Kennecott Utah Copper Mine include; sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen fluoride, nitrous oxide, arsenic, lead, zinc, chromium, nickel, mercury, iron, cadmium and copper. A few of the most dangerous out of the group are mercury, nitrous oxide, lead, arsenic, and carbon monoxide.
The most common side effects humans experience from mercury exposure include; tremors; insomnia; weakness in the muscles; twitching; muscle atrophy; headaches; disturbances in sensations; changes in nerve responses; performance deficits on tests of cognitive function.
When exposed to high levels of mercury there can be damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, different immune system disorders, and in severe cases it can result in respiratory failure and death.
Nitrous Oxide affects the respiratory system in many ways by causing asthma, damage to the lung tissue and sometimes premature death. Smaller particles can make their way deep into sensitive parts of the lungs causing respiratory diseases like emphysema and bronchitis. Nitrous oxide can even aggravate any existing heart conditions. It is also very damaging to vegetation and decreases crop yields.
Another affect Nitrous Oxide has in the atmosphere when it is mixed with sulfur dioxide (which is also released by Kennecott) is acid rain, fog, and snow. It destroys cars, buildings, and damages forests. It also causes many lakes, rivers, and streams to become acidic so they they are no longer suitable for fishing or fish. Being a greenhouse gas, it has been also linked to Global Warming and damaging the Ozone Layer.
There is an array of neurological, gastrointestinal, reproductive and other symptoms people will experience when exposed to lead particles or fumes. Exposure during pregnancy can cause toxic effects on a human fetus, including increased risk of premature birth, low birth-weight, and impaired mental development.
A short list of side effects of acute exposure includes; fatigue; irritability; anorexia; anemia; nausea; vomiting; constipation; impaired concentration; seizures. Those who manage to survive the acute symptoms are highly likely to later suffer from side effects related to chronic exposure of lead.
Chronic exposure of lead is of course much more serious. People suffer from hypertension, hearing loss, headaches, aggression, carpal tunnel syndrome, gout, anti-social behavior, decreased reflexes, restlessness and insomnia.
Arsenic is a carcinogen and affects many organs in the body. It enters the human body through ingestion, inhalation, or skin absorption. Most ingested and inhaled arsenic is extraordinary well absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract, where it then travels through the blood stream. It is distributed in a large number of organs including the lungs, liver, kidney, and the skin. People eat contaminated food that is grown in and with contaminated soil and water, which is an increasing problem. There are studies showing very high traces of arsenic in the water and soil in Salt Lake City, Utah and surrounding areas.
Acute arsenic exposure is initially associated with nausea, vomiting, extreme abdominal pain, and severe diarrhea. Long term exposure of arsenic has many more side effects. The first changes are skin pigmentation changes, skin lesions, and then hard patches on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Next is high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. It takes about ten years for Cancer to develop. It can cause cancer in the bladder, lungs and skin. There is some evidence that Arsenic may also cause cancers of the kidney, liver and prostate.
Carbon Monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that can cause sudden and unexpected death when exposed to high levels. In low levels carbon monoxide exposure is usually not immediately apparent, in the long term it can cause some serious side effects. Many will experience increased anxiety or depression, tremors, issues controlling urine or bowel movements, trouble with thinking clearly or learning new things, problems with coordination, and difficulty speaking, chewing, or controlling facial muscles. These side effects may be temporary or permanent.
Despite the Hazards, Expansion Continues
Even with so much evidence pointing to all of the dangerous health hazards posed to the citizens of Salt Lake City and the surrounding areas, the Kennecott Utah Copper Mine continues to increase its expansion of the site without little modification to most of its equipment, built in the 1970s or earlier.
The U.P.H.E., a group of over three hundred Utah physicians, declared an air-pollution-related public health emergency on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake in 2013. On January 25th, 2014, about five thousand protesters fed up with Utah’s pollution gathered at the State Capitol. This protest was on record as the biggest air-pollution-specific protest in U.S. history at the time. It seems a large number of Utah citizens are starting to recognize the enormously dangerous pollution problem in their state. For some it may be too late as they have already suffered severe health consequences; for others, it may be just in time.
Bingham Canyon, Utah
Heavy Metal Poisoning?
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
R.H.Wall on September 30, 2017:
A well researched, the number of air born material is not as bad as your writing would led the read to think. Nice scare tack tick with the medical cause and effect. The grate amount of The "air born" contaminants are in the smelter discharge; and are collected in what are called scrubbers. Were do you think the 1 million tons of sulfuric acid from, witch they use some in there process and the rest they sale for profit. Have mining practice's been bad in the past? Yes are then better now? Yes. So we can bitch about the past or we can identify and fix what is wrong and move forward.
Jose on February 17, 2015:
I read about this place in The Road to McCarthy so it's anazimg to see the place for real. Even more anazimg is that it looks just like I imagined it, that's a great tribute to Pete McCarthy's writing.
Mary Metallic (author) from Seattle on March 15, 2014:
Wow, thank you for reading my articles and your comment! :-)
Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on March 15, 2014:
Excellent informational Hub, Fryday. This is and your prior Hub are cautionary tales about what can happen to citizens when they allow their industries carte blanche do to what they wish to our citizens and environment. They care only for their profits and not the health of their fellow citizens.